Pass the Grains, Please

Pass the Grains, Please

Where will we find additional acres of fertile farmland?

Brighter Green’s latest documentary, “What’s for Dinner?”, questions whether people of the developing world–specifically, China–will be able to consume as much meat and dairy as people of the developed world, without exceeding the carrying capacity of the earth beyond repair. If the meat industry continues to expand in China, there could major consequences for both global food markets and climate change. Recent reports estimate that global livestock production and consumption may be responsible for 51% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. As the meat industry expands in developing countries, large supplies of grains such as corn will be required to support the increased populations of cows, pigs, and chickens. A May 2008 study showed that the growth in Chinese meat consumption since 1995 requires an additional eight billion bushels of grain annually for livestock feed’this puts incredible pressure on world grain supplies.

If more than half of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by livestock, then the connection between food and climate change is clear. The more animals around the world eating grain, breathing, and passing gas, the more CO2 and methane released into the atmosphere. Another crucial connection in understanding food sustainability is the interdependent relationship between Meat World and the grain world. Around the globe’and especially in the developing countries’national economies are at the mercy of tenuous cycles of food supply and demand, flood and drought, urbanization and land shortages. Increased meat consumption is reflected in all of these cycles. Livestock put major pressure on grain supplies and on the land: If Chinese meat consumption increases to 45% above 2008 levels, placing it on par with US consumption rates, an additional 277 million metric tones of grains will be required to support the growth’and this additional grain will require 68 million acres of arable land. Crop production is much less profitable than producing meat, and as a result, crop farming often takes place on poor quality land that is denuded and most susceptible to drought.

There simply isn’t enough fertile cropland remaining on the globe to maintain this uncontrolled growth in meat production and consumption. Where is all this extra grain going to come from? Right now, a record one billion people are hungry and a child dies every six seconds from malnutrition. In most developing nations, grains are the primary source of calories since meat is too expensive. Increased meat consumption in large countries with huge populations like China will greatly limit the world’s grain supply. If China began importing only 5% of its total current grain supply, this elevated demand would require the grain exports of all other countries, taking calories away from people in the poorest parts of the world.

Photo credit: Jerrold Bennett